The U.S. Justice Department says its decision to require RT to register as a foreign agent under a decades-old law was prompted in part by conclusions from the U.S. intelligence community about the state-funded Russian TV network.
The comment on December 21 by Adam Hickey, a deputy assistant attorney general, was the fullest explanation to date from U.S. officials regarding RT’s registration under Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
That has prompted angry recriminations from Russian officials, who say a law signed by President Vladimir Putin in November enabling the government to label foreign media outlets "foreign agents" was adopted in response.
Rights groups and Western governments fear the Russian law will be applied selectively and will further restrict freedom of the media in Russia.
Asked why the Justice Department directed RT’s American operating unit to register under FARA now, rather than years ago when RT first started its U.S. broadcasting, Hickey cited a report issued in January by the U.S. intelligence community.
That report concluded that Russia conducted a cyber-and-propaganda campaign aimed at influencing the 2016 U.S presidential race. It cited RT, formerly known as Russia Today, and the news agency Sputnik as distributing government propaganda.
"That report was certainly relevant to our decision to examine them more recently," he said.
RT’s American operating unit, T&R Productions, filed its FARA registration on November 13 after weeks of protests and threats of retaliation within Russia. Two days later, a U.S.–owned, Washington-area radio station that recently signed a contract to broadcast Sputnik newscasts filed its FARA registration.
At the end of November, RT was stripped of its credentials to cover Congress, a decision made by the committee of reporters that oversees press access to the U.S. legislative branch.
Andrew Feinberg, a former White House correspondent for Sputnik who was interviewed by the FBI about the agency’s operations, said in September that the FARA registration would be wholly justified.
"This is a case where the reasons are clear cut, and the differences between RT and Sputnik and legitimate foreign-owned news agencies are readily identifiable. I think it's totally reasonable to act," Feinberg told RFE/RL at the time.
The registration filed by T&R Productions identified the foreign principal it was controlled by as TV Novosti, and confirmed it was "financed by a foreign government, foreign political party, or other foreign principal."
However, the company also suggested it did not know where TV Novosti’s funding comes from.
"Registrant's understanding is that the Russian Federation finances ANO TV-Novosti to a substantial extent. Registrant is not sufficiently aware of who supervises, owns, directs, controls or subsidizes ANO TV-Novosti," it said.
RT is not the only foreign media outlet operating in the United States that has registered under FARA over the years. Units belonging to broadcasters and publications from China, Korea, Japan, and Canada have been registered at various times. In the 1960s, the Soviet news agency TASS, along with the newspaper Pravda, were also FARA-registered.
The law, which was passed in 1938 to counter fears of Nazi propaganda and misinformation, does not restrict foreign media operating in the United States, but does require things like accounting registers, corporate documents, and similar records be made available for Justice Department inspection.
RT’s director, as well as top Russian officials and lawmakers, had alleged that requiring RT to register amounted to an infringement on free speech, and Russia has taken what it describes as reciprocal measures.
The Justice Ministry on December 5 declared Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and seven affiliated news services "foreign agents."
Russia has not pinned the designation on any other media outlets. But on December 21, the ministry released a draft order whose wording suggested that, if it is approved and issued, all foreign media outlets would be considered foreign agents.
Russian officials have asserted that the new media restrictions are "symmetrical" with the U.S. measures. U.S. officials say the Russian action is not symmetrical, arguing that the U.S. and Russian laws are different and that Moscow uses its "foreign-agent" legislation, including a separate law that applies to nongovernmental organizations and civic groups, to silence dissent and discourage the free exchange of ideas.
While RT and Sputnik distribute their programs freely in the United States, RFE/RL is already subject to severe restrictions in Russia, with nearly all of its radio broadcasts forced off the air by 2012 due to administrative pressure. Neither RFE/RL nor VOA has any access to cable TV in Russia.
RFE/RL and VOA are overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, a U.S. agency that supervises civilian government broadcasting and media operations. VOA is a federal entity, while RFE/RL is a private, nonprofit organization funded by a grant from the U.S. Congress.